Cold and flu have become an inseparable pair, like salt and
pepper or New Year's and weight loss. Walking down the "cold
and flu" aisle of any drugstore, you will find stacks of bright
boxes with bold claims of help for those suffering from a cold
or the flu. Since the two illnesses share some similar symptoms,
and both come during "cold and flu season," the two often run
together in people's minds. We have a vague idea that they are
different, but if pressed, have a hard time saying exactly how.
The significant distinctions between these two common conditions
elude most of us, but the question is rarely raised.
symptoms we get during a viral illness are often the body's
attempt to get rid of the virus and to minimize damage. Sneezing
ejects the virus from the nose, cough from the lungs and throat,
vomiting from the stomach, and diarrhea from the intestines.
makes it difficult for the virus to reproduce. The topic of
viral illnesses will always remain somewhat confusing, since
the body has a relatively small number of symptoms with which
to respond to an ever-changing, wide variety of viruses. While
colds and flus may overlap, the differences between them are
common cold is centered in the nose.
200 different types of viruses can cause a cold. Rhinoviruses,
which means "nose viruses", are the most common cause. Respiratory
syncitial viruses (RSV) and a host of others can produce colds.
Of note, influenza
viruses occasionally cause illnesses with symptoms of the
three most frequent symptoms of a cold are nasal stuffiness,
sneezing, and runny nose. Throat irritation is often involved
(but not with a red throat). Adults and older children with
colds generally have minimal or no fever. Infants and toddlers
often run a fever in the 100 to 102 degree range.
on which virus is the culprit, the virus might also produce
a headache, cough, postnasal drip, burning eyes, muscle aches,
or a decreased appetite, but in a cold, the most prominent
symptoms are in the nose. (By the way, forcing a child to
eat with a decreased appetite due to a cold is both unnecessary
and unhelpful, but do encourage drinking plenty).
anything, using the term "common" with cold is an understatement.
Colds are the most prevalent infectious disease. Children
average 3 to 8 colds per year (younger children and boys are
on the higher end of the range). Colds occur mostly in the
winter (even in areas with mild winters). In areas where there
is no winter, colds are most common in the rainy season. Parents
get about half as many colds as their children do. Moms tend
to get at least one more cold per year than Dads.
someone has a cold, the nasal secretions are teeming with
cold viruses. Coughing, drooling, and talking are all unlikely
ways to pass a cold. But sneezing, nose-blowing, and nose-wiping
are the means by which the virus spreads. You can catch a
cold by inhaling the virus if you are sitting close to a sneeze,
or by touching your nose, eyes, or mouth after you have touched
something contaminated by infected nasal secretions.
you have "caught" a cold, the symptoms begin in 1 to 5 days.
Usually irritation in the nose or a scratchy feeling in the
throat is the first sign, followed within hours by sneezing
and a watery nasal discharge.
one to three days, the nasal secretions usually become thicker
and perhaps yellow or green -- this is a normal part of the
common cold and not
a reason for antibiotics. During this period, children's
eardrums are usually congested, and there may well be fluid
behind the ears -- whether or not the child will end up with
a true bacterial infection. Yes, antibiotics are too frequently
prescribed for this as well.
is usually over all by itself in about 7 days, with perhaps
a few lingering symptoms (cough) for another week. If it lasts
longer, consider another problem, such as a sinus infection
it lasts, the common cold is primarily a head cold. While
you may feel tired or have aches, the illness is centered
in the nose, and most of the symptoms are above the neck.
the flu, you are sick all over.
flu can be a much more serious illness. The most deadly recent
worldwide outbreak was the flu epidemic at the beginning of
this century and killed more than 20 million people. Even
today, more than 36,000 people in the United States die from
the flu each year -- primarily those who are weak from advanced
age or a major illness.
single family of viruses -- the influenza viruses -- causes
the flu. Most people get the flu once every year or two or
three, and the illness is unpleasant but not usually dangerous.
Unlike the common cold, both adults and children with the
flu generally have a fever.
flu can take many forms, but here we will describe the most
the flu begins abruptly, with a fever in the 102 to 106 degree
range (with adults on the lower end of the spectrum), a flushed
face, body aches, and marked lack of energy. Some people have
other systemic symptoms such as dizziness or vomiting. The
fever usually lasts for a day or two, but can last five days.
between day 2 and day 4 of the illness, the "whole body" symptoms
begin to subside, and respiratory symptoms begin to increase.
The virus can settle anywhere in the respiratory tract, producing
symptoms of a cold, croup,
sore throat, bronchiolitis, ear infection, and/or pneumonia.
most prominent of the respiratory symptoms is usually a dry,
hacking cough. Most people also develop a sore (red) throat
and a headache. Nasal discharge and sneezing are not uncommon.
These symptoms (except the cough) usually disappear within
4 to 7 days. Sometimes there is a second wave of fever at
this time. The cough and tiredness usually lasts for weeks
after the rest of the illness is over.
droplets from coughs or sneezes is the most common way to
catch the flu. Symptoms appear 1 to 7 days later (usually
2-3 days). The flu is airborne and quite contagious, and with
its short incubation period it often slams into a community
all at once, creating a noticeable cluster of school and work
absences. The flu usually arrives in the winter months. Within
2 or 3 weeks of its arrival, most of the classroom has had
other major difference between the common cold and the flu
is that the flu is preventable. In any given year, two or
three different strains of influenza virus cause most of the
flu around the world.